The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About . Donate .


Taste Versus Prejudice

BY EDWARD BAXTER PERRY
 
The ancient adage that "there is no accounting for taste," is founded upon a substratum of truth. Strictly and logically speaking, there is not; but as a matter of surface fact in daily experience, there is more dispute—indeed, more heated and vindictive quarreling—about matters of taste than about any other subject, always excepting religious beliefs.
 
The different religious sects war with each other to the knife about their various beliefs, just as if it were presumable that any one of them is wholly right and the others wholly wrong, or as if what they believe or disbelieve can possibly alter by a hair's breadth the real facts, whatever they may be, forgetting meanwhile that the fundamental principle of all religions is "peace, good will to men." Just so in Art, and especially in Musical Art, where taste is religion, the divergent factions are, and always have been, fighting to the death for their special, narrow tenets, forgetting that Art is broader than them all, has room enough for all, and that the watchword "pure taste" is too often used to rally the legions of bigotry and prejudice.
 
Artistic taste, in its true essence, is compounded of three elements, namely: Emotional Temperament, Intellect, and Education. Hence it is partly natural, inherent, and partly a matter of environment and training. In a sense, it is an integral part of the individuality and cannot be fundamentally changed; yet in another sense it is susceptible of great modification and development. No two persons possess these three elements in exactly similar degrees, or mixed in precisely the same proportions. Hence the wide diversity of what is called taste. When all three are present in largest measure and blended in about equal proportion, we find the broadest, finest, and fullest perception and appreciation of the widest range of esthetic impressions—the greatest variety of art forms. This breadth and catholicity of taste should be the aim of every votary of music or any other art. We cannot supply emotion or intelligence, if wholly lacking in ourselves or our pupils, but we can arouse, direct, and expand them, and materially improve the original compound by thorough stirring and a generous admixture of the third element— education.
 
Taste, like any other faculty, is amenable to culture. It grows. Only prejudice stands still. The boy who enjoys only "rag-time" at ten, only love- lyrics at twenty, may, at thirty, revel in the Beethoven symphony or the Wagner opera, if he has a chance to develop and is not too stupid or too hidebound to take it. True taste is progressive, seeks new fields, a broader scope, increases its possibilities for enjoyment with every year. Prejudice hangs back, clinging stubbornly to old, familiar landmarks, refusing even to examine what is new or different, keeping to the well-worn routes of accustomed sensations and mere personal preferences.
 
The story is told of a German peasant who once in his life spent a day at the best hotel in Berlin. He went to the table with the remark, "The farmer eats what the farmer knows," and ignoring the sumptuous bill of fare, ordered his usual sausage and sour krout. This is the attitude of our great public, musically. It knows a few tunes and wants them rehashed on all occasions, scorning the banquet of finer dishes within its reach. Are we musicians quite sure that we are wholly free from the same narrow limitations. Do we always strive to grow to the size of our Art, or do we try to cut it down to fit our own dimensions.
 
I hear one whose temperament is calm and placid, who regards the expression of strong feeling as "gush" or affectation, and who has been brought up on Haydn and Mozart, protesting that the modern composers are all hysterical ranters, their productions absurd monstrosities rather than masterpieces; that the music of Wagner and his school is a "deplorable decadence in Art," "mere sound and fury," signifying nothing, because they depict whole ranges of emotion, extreme heights and depths of life, which
 
are foreign to their experience, of which their tranquil natures have no conception. Others who are accustomed to live at high pressure, whose emotions are intense, volcanic, who love the tempest for its own wild sake, declaim against the old classic masters as tame, slow, sleepy; declare their Greek simplicity and "perfect symmetry" of form to be "pedantic craftmanship"; their general cheerful optimistic moods to be "commonplace, flat, and unprofitable," forgetting that sunshine and repose are as truly elements of life, and hence of Art, as storm and strife.
 
The scholarly student of Bach, with whom the intellect predominates, decries Chopin as "a silly sentimentalist," and the Chopin enthusiast, who believes the heart to be greater than the head, retorts vehemently that Bach wrote only musical thematics, ingenious problems in tone, interesting only to a student of arithmetic, not Art works, at all; and so the strife goes on. Why is the rose vulgarly gaudy and flaunting in its richly-tinted beauty, because the lily is white or the violet blue? Is the anemone pale, colorless, and unlovely because the poppy blazes in regal splendor? Is there not place for all in our garden and in our hearts?
 
So in music, there will always be certain forms and styles which specially appeal to us, and others in which we take a less vivid, personal interest, depending on the temperament with which we were born, our early training and habitual point of view.
 
But it should be our aim and effort to learn to appreciate and to enjoy the merit and beauty of all. No human music is perfect. Even the best composers all have their weak points, their deficiencies and limitations, their moments when their genius nods; but no good music is without its special kind of charm, its peculiar pleasure-giving power, if we will but train our perceptions to grasp them.
 
The Johnsonian majesty and ponderous grandeur of Bach; the sunny serenity and Spencerian fancy of Mozart; the frank, open-hearted simplicity of Haydn; the somber earnestness and rugged strength of Beethoven; the ineffable tenderness and glowing passion of Chopin; the wild, elemental freedom and force of Wagner; the mystical subtleties of Schumann; even the obscure but mighty strivings for utterance of that Browning of music—that cloud- enveloped giant, Brahms; all these and many more beside are legitimate and important elements in the full musical life; are phases in the broad, well-rounded musical experience which may and should be ours.
 
If any of them fail to reach and affect your esthetic consciousness, be sure that the fault is largely your own. As a true student you should strive to expand along the lines, not of least, but of greatest resistance; that is to say, you should devote special attention to the forms and composers you least understand and enjoy. They are new worlds to conquer.
 
In playing for others select for the most part works with which you are in fullest sympathy, and which therefore you will render best; but in your own study strive always to annex new territory. The literary student who, preferring Scott or Cowper, should never read any other author, would be narrow indeed; and precisely the same principle holds good in music. All piano pupils need most the things which they desire least, because they are the very things which they have not, or possess in the least degree; and it is a curious fact that many teachers lay special stress on the things which they or their pupils already have in largest measure.
 
The instrumental specialist is limited at best. Let us at least include within these limits the entire possible range of the instrument, and, so far as may be, other important branches of music. Why need the pianist, as is too often the case, know nothing of vocal works, and the singer nothing of piano literature; and both be woefully ignorant concerning the great orchestral scores, and indifferent toward them; especially as regards the different masters and schools of composition?
 
The taste should be eclectic, trained to include all, enjoy all; to discriminate, analyze, and compare intelligently; but to find and feel the good in every form and phase of musical Art, from a gipsy dance to an oratorio; from an Indian love-song to grand opera. Human life is and always will be our most interesting subject of study and contemplation, and any art work, musical or otherwise, which expresses adequately any phase of human life, physical, mental, or emotional, is worthy and legitimate.
 
Let us then have done with prejudice, and develop a catholic taste.

<< The Stupid Pupil     Nervousness >>

Monthly Archives

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music